Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Storyteller's Rulebook: How People Really Talk

So I assume we’re all enjoying the “Operation: Varsity Blues” scandal, where the rich and famous got arrested for various illegal schemes to get their kids into universities (hiring imposters to take their kids’ SATs, faking learning disabilities to get more time on the SAT, photoshopping their heads onto athletes to get recruited, outright bribery, etc.)

The latest development is that Vice has transcribed some of the tapes, which are delightful, but they’re also really instructive for writing dialogue. In my own writing, I’ve often gotten pushback for how fragmentary my dialogue is, but I always defend it by saying that the way we really talk. Well, these strictly-faithful transitions back me up nicely. Here’s one example:

  • SPOUSE: So [my son] and I just got back from [U]SC Orientation. It went great. The only kind of glitch was, and I-- he didn’t-- [my son] didn’t tell me this at the time-- but yesterday when he went to meet with his advisor, he stayed after a little bit, and the-- apparently the advisor said something to the effect of, “Oh, so you’re a track athlete?” And [my son] said, “No.” ’Cause, so [my son] has no idea, and that’s what-- the way we want to keep it.

Another conversation:

  • B. ISACKSON: Well, I, I-- But if-- but they, they --
  • CW-1: Yes.
  • B. ISACKSON: --went the meat and potatoes of it, which a-- which a guy would love to have is, it’s so hard for these kids to get into college, and here’s-- look what-- look what’s going on behind the schemes, and then, you know, the, the embarrassment to everyone in the communities. Oh my God, it would just be-- Yeah. Ugh.

And another:

  • CAPLAN: Done. The other stuff (laughing)--
  • CW-1: That will be up to you guys, it doesn’t matter to me.
  • CAPLAN: Yeah, I, I hear ya. It’s just, to be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about the, if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished. So I, I just—
  • CW-1: It’s never happened before in twenty-some-odd years. The only way anything can happen is if she--
  • CAPLAN: Someone talks--
  • CW-1: Yeah, if she tells somebody.

People don’t finish their sentences, they lose their train of thought, they rephrase things on the fly, they interrupt each other. These are all highly-educated successful people and every single one talks this way.

So should you write this way? As I said, producers and other note-givers thought I was doing it too much. It was realistic, but maybe too much so. If your characters are too articulate, injecting some of this realism into your dialogue will make it come alive and feel refreshingly real, but maybe don’t take it as far as I did. The goal in writing is to crate a sense of the real, but once you’ve done that you can make everyone a little more articulate than they would actually be.

Edited to Add: Here was a comment of mine that I thought should be elevated to the main piece: Looking at the above transcript, you probably wouldn't want to write a sentence exactly like “and here’s-- look what-- look what’s going on behind the schemes, and then, you know, the, the embarrassment to everyone in the communities.” That's realistic in an annoying way.

But you might well want to write something like the next sentence: “Oh my God, it would just be-- Yeah. Ugh.” That's realistic in a more appealing way. Not finishing that sentence seems more meaningful than the stumbles in the previous sentence.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Little Break

Okay, guys, despite the fact that I’ve had several weeks, I don’t have another book ready to go. I don’t know if we’re going to move forward to another one or move backwards and re-examine some of the others from a “Believe-Care-Invest” perspective, but I’m not ready to do either yet, so I’ll take a week or two off here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Have at Least Six Painful Decisions: The Archive

Hi guys, I continue to dig through old posts looking for stuff for a new book and re-discovered this forgotten micro-series that I like a lot. The Checklist is set in stone now that it’s in a book, but I can’t figure out why this question never made it onto the list, and I wish I could add it now. Ah well.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Best of 2018, #1: The Favourite (And How Audiences Pick Their Favorites)

(Spoilers ahead!)
This year, The Favourite was my favorite (and wouldn’t it be nice if the Oscars picked it, just so that the headlines could write themselves?)

We’ve talked about the Villain Fake-Out before, where a supporting character turns out to have been the villain all along, but this movie does something more ambitious: Our hero gradually turns villainous, and her victimizer gradually grows more sympathetic.

The movie does all the work of making us fall in love with Emma Stone (First step: Cast Emma Stone), and we only belatedly say 90 minutes later, “Hey, why did I ever fall in love with this lady? She’s kind of terrible.” So we look back at what gave us the false impression that she would be a better lover for the queen than Rachel Weisz. We see the tricks they used:

  • Stone is poor. She’s a cousin of Weisz, but her father has cost them everything, and now she must come begging for any job.
  • Stone is humiliated: When she gets off a carriage seeking her cousin, someone sadistically kicks her and sends her sprawling in the mud. Later, she is treated terribly by the rest of the staff.
  • Stone is “nicer”. The sexual relationship between Weisz and the queen has turned acidic. At times it seems they can barely stand each other, but the queen clearly needs Weisz, both sexually and for advice.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our poor, put-upon heroine could live out a Cinderella story, win the heart (and bed) of a royal and get to spend the rest of her life attending balls in the palace?

But it’s only when Stone is the new Favourite that we remember, “Oh right, bad people can be poor and humiliated, too.” And they can even be “nice”, when it advances their cause. As Weisz tries to remind the queen after she’s been forced out, a good lover should tell you when you look like a badger. Stone sees that the queen no longer wants honesty, and there’s a chance to steal her away with fawning lies.

We believe in all the characters, because the details in the movie are wonderful, but we care for and invest our hopes in Stone’s character only. Then we discover that her eventual success does not gratify our emotional investment like we thought it would. By design, we do not care for nor invest in Weisz’s character …until the end, when we re-evaluate our value system. The movie encourages us to question the ways that all movies get us to choose our favorite character, and realize that just because one character is clearly easier to care for and invest in, doesn’t mean that the easy choice is the right choice.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Best of 2018 , #2: Black Panther (and Rise Above Your Genre's Limitations)

Black Panther begins with an exhilarating scene: On the verge of becoming king of Wakanda, T’Challa invites anyone who wishes to challenge his right to rule to fight him unarmed. A giant named M’Baku steps up, and the two have a thrilling fight in a waterfall. Our hero, though smaller, fights better, proves his physical superiority, and earns the right to rule.

But then, halfway through the movie, Killmonger comes along and demands his own challenge. They go back to the waterfall, where he turns out to be a better fighter and seemingly throws T’Challa to his death. Killmonger then becomes king and Black Panther.

And here’s the thing, it must have been so tempting for the filmmakers to have Killmonger cheat in that big fight. That’s how they did in the perfectly fine cartoon version, after all. That’s the way superhero movies are supposed to go: might makes right, and the heroes are going to win any fair fight.

But the filmmakers rose above that temptation. Killmonger wins fair and square. The kingdom is rightfully his.

There’s just one problem: That’s a really messed-up way to choose the leader of your country. FDR was maybe America’s greatest president, and he wouldn’t have fared very well in that waterfall. Many people have noted that superhero movies have a fascism problem. This movie tackles that head on. They get us to root for the hero to rule in a fascistic “punch your enemies into submission” way, then remind us that that’s all kind of messed up.

In the end, T’Challa never goes back to that waterfall. There is no third unarmed fight. He doesn’t contest that the first fight wasn’t fair. He takes his country back by using every trick in his book. And once he’s back in charge, he starts making some changes in how things are done. This movie confronts the genre’s fascism problem, and the result is the biggest-grossing and most acclaimed superhero movie of all time.

People go to genre movies to experience familiar genre pleasures, and they come prepared to forgive your genre’s inherent flaws.  But sometimes, if you’re sure that your movie is wildly entertaining, then you can try to confront those flaws and rise above the limitations that have held back your genre from Best Picture status.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Best of 2018, #3: Vice (and Who Has the Right to Tell a Story?)

A lot of people were shocked this was nominated for Best Picture, because the reviews weren’t great, but if you look at my previous Best Of lists, you’ll see a lot of McKay, Bale, Adams and Carrell, so you can’t be too surprised to see this here, can you? I don’t know what those bad reviews were talking about because I loved it.

And there was nothing I loved more about the movie than the opening title card:

  • The following is a true story.
  • Or as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is one of the most secretive leaders in history.
  • But we did our fucking best.

One of my problems with BlacKkKlansman is that it falls into a trap I’ve talked about before. In order to make a movie about the Klan in the ‘70s, the filmmakers just waited until someone walked in the door with a self-aggrandizing memoir. Then they had to turn an “I prank called David Duke” anecdote into a whole movie.

But movies should tell true stories that need to be told, not just tales on the periphery of history that a self-promoter wants to push. This is much harder to do, but the makers of Vice did their fucking best. Neither Dick nor Lynne Cheney were pushing McKay and company to tell this story, but enough of the facts were out there that they could get the job done.

I did a whole series many years ago on the question of who has the right to tell a story. Do you have the right to make a biopic about someone who doesn’t want their story told? For that matter, do liberals have the right to make movies about conservative protagonists? I think that one way you earn that right is to show empathy for your enemies, even the very worst of them, and this movie does that well. My heart leapt when Cheney almost-instantly told his daughter he didn’t have a problem with her being gay. That was the moment of actual heroism that McKay was able to find in Cheney’s life, and the movie would never have worked without it. That was the moment that McKay earned the right to tell this story: He found humanity within his anti-hero, and celebrated it.

You don’t have the right to tell a story about any protagonist, fictional or otherwise, if you can’t empathize with them at any point. If McKay took the attitude that Cheney was simply inhuman, the movie wouldn’t have worked. It wouldn’t have been convincing, it wouldn’t have been tragic, and it wouldn’t have been ironic. That’s the difference between an anti-hero and a villain: A good anti-hero must have the potential of redemption, and fail to achieve it.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Best of 2018, #5: If Beale Street Could Talk and #4: Roma

On “The Secrets of Story Podcast”, James Kennedy and I just had a debate about passive protagonists. He argued that, as a story guru, I’m too predisposed to demand active protagonists and overly dismissive of stories about passive ones, even when that works better for the story, and he’s probably right.

How important is it to have an active protagonist? An active protagonist certainly makes it easier to fully invest in and identify with a story, but does that have anything to do with great storytelling? Movies with passive protagonists simply require more of the viewer. Instead of reaching out and pulling us in, they require us to step through the screen of our own accord. Is that a bad thing?

If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma are very similar movies. Both deal with poor, minority, working women in the early 70s going through a pregnancy without a father around (though the dads are missing for very different reasons). Each is structured around the course of the pregnancy without a lot of plot beyond that. In each, the heroine is very sympathetic but also relatively passive, making very few decisions until the very end.

So according to my book, neither movie should be very compelling. And yet they are. Why?

  • Most obviously, because their suffering is very moving, in terms of the personal, systematic, and historical injustices they suffer. But according to my usual advice that should not be enough.
  • The realism is rewarding. We revel in each movie’s ability to capture unique-but-universal little moments that make us say “Ah-ha, yes, life is like that, isn’t it?” We like that the movies respect our intelligence and don’t try to manipulate us.
  • I think it’s key that these are the two best shot movies of the year (It’s an absolute outrage that IBSCT didn’t get a Cinematography nomination.) The majestic camerawork grants a power and dignity to these women’s lives that circumstances cannot.

I did not cry at either of these movies, despite their tragic endings. I was not put through the ringer or taken on an emotional rollercoaster. I felt somewhat alienated and distanced from these women, though I felt for their suffering very much. I was moved, but more on an intellectual level than an emotional level. Perhaps this is just because I am a white man unconsciously inured to the suffering of women of color. Perhaps it is because the movies did not grab me in the way they intended to. Or perhaps it’s because they had precisely their intended effect, preferring to be thoughtful rather than manipulative.

But I had no doubt that these were great movies that everyone should see, regardless of whether their heroes followed my rules.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Best of 2018: Runners Up 10-6

When I do these lists, I tend to go back and forth between having 5 and 10 movies, depending on how strong the year was …and some years I split the different by declaring movies 6-10 to be runners-up, as I’m doing this year. This is largely just because I don’t have enough to say about these five to fill entries, but I’ll do a little...

10: BlacKkKlansman This movie was a lot of fun and also a timely tale about the mainstreaming of hate, but ultimately I found it to be too predictable and the lead too uncharismatic. Nevertheless, Lee’s direction is wonderful as always, and I’d love to see him win Best Director for old time’s sake. I had another issue with this movie that I’ll talk about in contrast to the #3 movie.

9: Paddington 2 This was the best reviewed movie of the year with good reason -it’s absolutely delightful- but its pleasures were perhaps a little too small-scale to finish higher on the list. Brendan Gleeson definitely deserves an Oscar, though.

8: Infinity War No movie thrilled me more or hit me harder in the gut. It was a cheap hit, because they’re obviously going to undo it all, but powerful nonetheless. Thanos is one of the all-time great villains, at least so far.

7: A Star is Born I hate to reward a fourth-time-around remake, especially since it’s nowhere near as good as the 1954 version, but this movie, judged on its own merits, works spectacularly well. Cooper and Gaga both felt like real flesh-and-blood people, which is pretty amazing given how melodramatic the story is.

6: A Quiet Place A masterfully-made white-knuckle chiller. And I actually found a Rulebook Casefile:

I’ve talked about how superhero movies have a Klan problem, but of course by the same token, post-apocalyptic movies have a survivalist problem. If America is actually invaded, then those living off the grid with big gun stockpiles will look pretty smart, but liberal filmmakers such as myself don’t want to tell that story, so we have to come up with apocalypses that don’t reward gun ownership …such as aliens that attack loud sounds. Even in this case, where the writer/director/star seems like he’s probably a right winger based off other projects he’s chosen, he knew that it would be more fun to have unique villains doing a unique attack that had to be defeated in a unique way.  We’ve talked about how you should come up with ways to hurt your hero that would only hurt your hero, well I guess it also works the other way: Come up with ways to defeat the invader that would only hurt this invader.